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SWAYNE, HUGH, army officer and colonial administrator; eldest son of John Swayne, collector of excise at Cork (Republic of Ireland); d. 31 Oct. 1836 in Paris.

Hugh Swayne’s military career began in April 1782, when he was appointed a second lieutenant in the Royal Irish Artillery. In August 1793 he rose to captain, and during 1797 and 1798 he served in Demerara and Berbice (Guyana). A lieutenant-colonel from 1 Sept. 1800, Swayne retired on full pay when the Royal Irish Artillery was amalgamated with the Royal Artillery early in 1801, and he became a brevet colonel in 1810. His reflections on the Napoleonic Wars spurred his interest in the planning of campaigns, which he dealt with in A sketch of the etat major; or general staff of an army in the field (London, 1810). The book reveals a practical turn of mind, and this characteristic likely influenced the British authorities to appoint Swayne on 26 Aug. 1812 as administrator of Cape Breton with the position of brigadier-general. On 4 June 1813 he was raised to major-general.

When Swayne arrived in Sydney on New Year’s Day 1813 to take over from Nicholas Nepean*, he faced several problems. The most immediate was how to protect the island, whose defensive works had been described before the War of 1812 as “unworthy of Observation.” In 1811 the garrison had been increased to 168 men and Nepean had made a few feeble moves to organize a militia. In the face of hostilities, however, these measures would be totally inadequate. The greatest danger was from the sea, but only two ships cruised the coasts. This weakness was revealed immediately after the outbreak of war when American privateers attacked fishing and trading vessels off Arichat, upsetting the commerce of that area and of the Strait of Canso.

Since Swayne could not count on help from Halifax, he took steps to lessen the colony’s vulnerability. To ensure that the island could feed itself if cut off from outside supplies, in April 1813 he stopped the export of selected foodstuffs for six months. Later that year, as protection for the coal mines, he rebuilt a redoubt and barracks near them and had troops stationed there, to provide at least a show of strength in case of attack. Swayne also reorganized the militia, dividing the island into 20 districts, each with a captain and two lieutenants. He tried to choose as leaders men with previous military experience.

Another of Swayne’s difficulties was with land. Freehold grants had been forbidden since 1789, and because many immigrants could not afford to lease they simply occupied untenanted sites. Moreover, since leasehold tenure was always uncertain, lessees often neglected to cultivate their land beyond the minimum required for survival. Swayne recognized the evils of this system and wanted grants reinstated, particularly because they were being made in Nova Scotia. Though the restraining order was rescinded only after Swayne’s departure, the action was partly the result of his prodding.

Swayne had little understanding of and no patience with Cape Breton politics, which centred on the question of whether or not the colony should have a house of assembly. In the spring of 1812 Nepean had sided with the pro-assembly faction, headed by the attorney general, Richard Collier Bernard DesBarres Marshall Gibbons, and had dismissed from the Executive Council the chief justice, Archibald Charles Dodd*, who opposed an assembly. Nepean had agreed with Gibbons that in the absence of an assembly the collection of all taxes, and in particular the duty on imported rum, which was an important source of funds, should be stopped. This decision had left Cape Breton with practically no revenue.

Swayne had no appreciation of arguments that were depriving the colony of money during a war. He agreed with Dodd that its political problems were caused by a few vindictive individuals interested only in power, and in April 1813 he dissolved the council and reappointed such opponents of an assembly as Dodd and Richard Stout*. Swayne then canvassed the “leading inhabitants,” as he termed them, and discovered that they were favourable to the rum tax. It was therefore reinstated, and when Gibbons protested he was pressured into resigning as attorney general. Undeterred, Gibbons began to question openly the legality of the tax. Swayne brought Richard John Uniacke* Jr from Halifax to serve as attorney general and began a prosecution of Gibbons, whom he saw as an enemy agent. Swayne’s decisive actions and Gibbons’s departure for England by March 1814 to seek reappointment put a temporary halt to political debate and allowed Swayne to spend the last year of his tenure concentrating on defence and the coal mines.

Under Swayne’s predecessors the mines had usually been leased to private operators, who paid a royalty to the government on each ton of coal exported, but when Swayne arrived they were virtually abandoned because no lease had been negotiated. In order to keep prices down in the face of wartime inflation, late in 1813 Swayne had to accept a bid with a low royalty from Ritchie and Leaver, a firm which had operated the mines previouslet despite Swayne’s efforts the Nova Scotia legislature complained of the high cost of Cape Breton coal and in 1815 petitioned successfully to be allowed to open mines in its own province. Swayne nevertheless carried on with Ritchie and Leaver, and Nova Scotia continued to purchase all the coal Cape Breton could ship.

By 1814 Swayne’s efforts seemed to have been vindicated, and the Colonial Office was happy with his achievements. That year his health began to fail, and in July 1815 he requested a leave of absence, returning to England in September. Although Swayne does not seem to have been employed again, he was promoted lieutenant-general on 27 May 1825 by seniority. Apparently he never married.

At the end of Swayne’s term, Cape Breton seemed poised for a period of growth. The militia was armed and organized, there was relative political tranquillity, and coal production was back on stream. Moreover, the colony was benefiting from the prosperity of the other Maritime colonies during the War of 1812 with the resulting increased demand for her coal, fish, and agricultural products. Although Swayne can hardly be credited with this particular development, his liberal attitude toward land grants, his reorganization of the militia, and the temporary political peace he achieved at least had provided a framework of stability.

R. J. Morgan

Hugh Swayne is the author of A sketch of the etat major; or general staff of an army in the field, as applicable to the British service; illustrated by the practice in other countries (London, 1810).

PAC, MG 11, [CO 217] Cape Breton A, 34; MG 24, A5; RG 8, I (C ser.), 229, 679, 722, 1706. PANS, MG 1, 262B. PRO, CO 217/132; CO 220/15; WO 1/96. Le Jeune, Dictionnaire. The royal military calendar, or army service and commission book . . . , ed. John Philippart (3rd ed., 5v., London, 1820), 3. W. S. MacNutt, The Atlantic provinces: the emergence of colonial society, 1712–1857 (Toronto, 1965).

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Cite This Article

R. J. Morgan, “SWAYNE, HUGH,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed February 26, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/swayne_hugh_7E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/swayne_hugh_7E.html
Author of Article:   R. J. Morgan
Title of Article:   SWAYNE, HUGH
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1988
Year of revision:   1988
Access Date:   February 26, 2024